JIt’s time to wake up and feel the cordite. Like the shockwaves of an exploding missile, Vladimir Putin’s War on the Edge of Europe is moving rapidly westward, smashing its way through the front doors of homes, businesses and venues. working from Berlin to Birmingham. Its fallout sows a toxic rain of instability, hardship and fear.
The idea that the Ukrainian conflict could be confined to Ukraine – NATO’s great politically convenient illusion – and that Western sanctions and arms shipments would stop the Russians has always been nonsense. Now, enraged by Kyiv’s stubborn resistance and determined to punish his tormentors, Putin’s goal is the impoverishment of Europe.
By weapon energy, food, refugees and information, the Russian leader is spreading economic and political pain, creating conditions of war for all. A long, cold European winter filled with calamities, power shortages and unrest looms. And like a coin-operated gas meter, the price of the timidity and short-sightedness of Western leaders is rising hour by hour.
Russia’s destabilization operations, social media manipulation, cyberattacks, diplomatic doublespeak, nuclear blackmail, as well as its relentless massacre of civilians in Ukraine, will only intensify Europe’s state of siege in the months to come. The West’s fanciful belief that it could avoid a continent-wide escalation is rapidly evaporating.
Although not entirely due to Putin’s war, Europe now faces fundamental challenges as big or bigger than the financial crash of 2008, Brexit or the pandemic. Yet many European and British politicians hide in denial. If, as expected, the gas stops flowing and the lights go out, it won’t just be about closed factories, lost jobs and depressed markets.
Frozen pensioners, starving children, empty supermarket shelves, unaffordable increases in the cost of living, devalued wages, strikes and street protests point to Sri Lankan meltdowns. An exaggeration? Not really. Blowback, stoked by Putin admirers far rightis already gaining ground in Greece and Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.
Also in prospect is a splintering of EU solidarity as national governments compete for scarce resources. Brussels is due to publish a “winter preparation plan” this week. But its provisions are vague and unenforceable. The broader context is the absence of an agreed and implemented EU-wide energy policy.
Despite promises of bilateral cooperation, a total Russian cut could pit country against country, further inflate prices and split the anti-Moscow coalition. In such a scenario, Putin would demand sanctions relief in exchange for the resumption of supplies, just as he blocked Black Sea grain.
Germany, which depends on imports, is already taking unilateral steps to seek alternative oil and gas suppliers. A the national emergency has come closer after Moscow closed the Nord Stream I gas pipeline last Monday. Many in Berlin fear (and some environmentalists hope) that the shutdown – and any subsequent rationing – will become permanent.
Robert Habeck, German vice-chancellor, publicly worried about a “political nightmare”. Bruno Le Maire, French Minister of Finance, seemed equally panicked Last week. He predicted an impending gas cut. Having become Napoleonic, he urges European countries to put themselves in “battle order”. But as in 1812, Russia has “General Winter”.
As if the growing misery of millions of people weren’t disheartening enough, consider also the impact of war on efforts to address the climate and biodiversity crises. In the UK and elsewhere, net zero targets seem increasingly likely to be abandoned.
Because Europe faces “very, very strong disputes and disputes” this winter over energy prices, it should make a short-term return to fossil fuels, suggested Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission. Once again, Germany is leading by example by increasing electricity production from coal-fired power plants. Once again the West is looking to the tyrannical oil sheikhs of the Gulf for salvation.
A chaotic winter in Europe could also strain relations with the United States. By comparison, America’s post-pandemic recovery is more advanced, its economy more resilient, its energy costs much lower. Yet it is US President Joe Biden’s overcautious leadership of NATO that has led Europe into this geopolitical cul-de-sac, even as the weakened euro slips below the dollar.
For Europeans, as they relearn at their expense, all wars are local. For Americans, as always, all wars are foreign.
Sanctions, economic aid and other non-military measures favored by Biden were never going to be enough to bring Putin to heel. Some observers suspect that a stalemate that slowly bleeds Russia serves US goals, regardless of the collateral damage. Yet, right now, it is Putin who is bleeding Europe. Sanctions backfire or misapplied. His energy chests swell. And Ukrainians aside, the pain is felt disproportionately by less wealthy European and developing countries. As instability grows, the divergence between the United States and Europe will fuel the pressure to change course.
The obvious escape route is a land-for-peace deal with Putin, made over the corpses of Ukraine. This kind of shoddy selling has influential advocates. If (and it’s a big “if”) Russia were to return to normal, it would alleviate Europe’s suffering – but probably not Ukraine’s.
Yet such an agreement would also constitute an unprecedented disaster for future peace and security on the continent and in the world as well. Think of Taiwan. Or Estonia. This would destroy the sovereign integrity of democratic Ukraine.
Fortunately, there is an alternative: to use the overwhelming power of NATO to turn the tide military.
As previously stated here, direct, focused, and forceful Western action to repel Russia’s repulsive horde is not a vote for World War III. This is the only possible way to end this escalation of horror quickly while ensuring that Putin and those who might emulate him do not profit from anarchic butchery.
Anxious to inflict maximum disruption, Putin openly threatens the heart of European democracy. The writing is on the wall and can no longer be ignored. Enough of half-measures and dithering! NATO should act now to force Putin’s marauding troops back within Russia’s recognized borders.
It’s not just Ukraine that needs saving. It is also Europe.